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Bulldozers poised to target Mecca birthplace of Muhammad
February 22, 2014 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Saudi Arabia's royal family are planning to demolish a library sitting on the remains of Prophet Muhammad's birth home to make way for the imam's residence and a presidential palace. The Saudi royal family are adherents of Wahhabism, a radical branch of Islam; by their beliefs, they have destroyed many Islamic heritage sites as they consider the preservation of relics of Muhammad's life to be akin to idolatry.
posted by divabat (62 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Iconoclasm has destroyed much history. A significant sign of major change occurring within a culture.
posted by stbalbach at 12:13 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


I regret the loss of the Bamiyan giant Buddhas the most of all.
posted by infini at 12:28 PM on February 22 [26 favorites]


I have trouble being outraged about this. The map is not the territory. If the House of Saud plants an outhouse over the birthplace of the Prophet, who cares? If I had the bones of Thomas Jefferson buried in my backyard, would it make me more intelligent, more liberal? Possessions are nothing; no, worse than nothing, they are a trap. But knowledge, true understanding, that is the treasure of the soul. Fighting over a scrap of ground is unworthy.
posted by SPrintF at 12:30 PM on February 22 [8 favorites]


Be outraged from a secular Western historical perspective, then: It belongs in a museum!
posted by Apocryphon at 12:40 PM on February 22 [6 favorites]


Yeah, there's no comparison between the Buddha statues (which were art) and a piece of ground. Preserving great works so that people can appreciate and be inspired by them is a great idea. Preserving an unremarkable fence because George Washington is alleged to have leaned against it is useless sentimentality.

To further the analogy: Monticello is worth keeping around because it's architecturally significant. If Thomas Jefferson had somehow lived in a post-war ranch in a subdivision, I'd be all for tearing that sucker down.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:43 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


who cares?

Historians. Many Muslims. Many non-religious, non-historian people who just like going to see historical things in their context. You're not required to be outraged about anything, and you're also not entitled to sneer at other people being outraged, or who might just have a different opinion about what constitutes a treasure of the soul.
posted by rtha at 12:43 PM on February 22 [59 favorites]


If the House of Saud plants an outhouse over the birthplace of the Prophet, who cares?

Lots of people. You may not be one of them, but the answer is "many, many people".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:43 PM on February 22 [17 favorites]


Well, to be fair: you're entitled to sneer, I guess, but not without people objecting.
posted by rtha at 12:44 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


I am genuinely curious about the whole thing. Surely the royal family is in the business of idolatry? Is this just some common as dirt Imam and President? Because my first thought is that this will be an Imam and President living on the birthplace of the prophet, which seems like a process of idolatry rather than a smashing of it.
posted by tychotesla at 12:46 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


I'm not sneering. But this attachment to objects is, by definition, idolatry. This devotion to "sacred ground" is why the Middle East still groans in pain. It's madness!
posted by SPrintF at 12:48 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


But knowledge, true understanding, that is the treasure of the soul. Fighting over a scrap of ground is unworthy.

Also, even if you feel this way, it looks like they're taking public space to make it into a private palace and residence for aristocratic or royal members of the population. There's a library there and they had a different plan earlier which would have ameliorated this. From the article:
Hopes that the library, which stands on a raised plinth, and the site beneath it would be spared rose briefly last year when Saudi Arabia's royal family backed off earlier plans to replace it, either with a sprawling metro rail station to drop off pilgrims or an enormous new library dedicated to King Abdul Aziz, founder of the modern kingdom.
No matter how you feel about religion, this seems problematic; a bigger library or even a metro station would be one thing, as these actually serve members of the community and the library furthers the knowledge you mention. "A scrap of ground", especially one which has significance to people, matters if it's being taken away from you by powerful interests for their own purposes.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:50 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


I'm not religious, but it's always sad to see historically and/or architecturally significant buildings get torn down. We do it all the time in this country, and it's vanishingly rarely for the better.

Also, I'm deliberately not quoting in the hopes of easing deletions, but I expected better than the tired and offensive "sky wizard" shit.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:53 PM on February 22 [10 favorites]


It's a sticky wicket.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:01 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Surely the royal family is in the business of idolatry? Is this just some common as dirt Imam and President? Because my first thought is that this will be an Imam and President living on the birthplace of the prophet, which seems like a process of idolatry rather than a smashing of it.

I see this point but if you're explicitly unhallowing the ground by using it as a secular space, even a secular space to house members of a religious royal family, that's different than using it to commemorate the Prophet.

Islam has a very long and complicated history regarding idolatry and Mohammad and everyone. There are very old Islamic texts with pictures of Mohammad but, if I remember my Islamic Civ classes from college accurately, the representation of living things was disavowed to avoid idolatry partially as a reaction against Christianity and the cross* (relatedly, apparently the Shahada was also formulated as a reaction against the idea of the holy Trinity to demonstrate that Muslims were more pious and the actual real monotheists).

That said, there is plenty of phenomenal Muslim art and architecture, some of it in the tombs of Muslim saints, so that becomes a tricky question, too: how do you honor representatives of the faith without idolizing them? What about relics? I've seen pieces of Mohammad's beard; is preserving that idolatry?

Keeping a strong sense of history and religious tradition and properly honoring important members of your faith while avoiding idolatry is a very complex issue, and one way to address it is indeed to demolish sites and buildings that are seen as significant, but this isn't as simple as "Surely the royal family is in the business of idolatry".

NB I'm not a Muslim.

*When I went to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, I kept seeing this design that looked like a serifed letter "I" carved into the stone and I thought it was some old Muslim symbol I didn't recognize. Eventually I realized that in fact it was a cross with the side pieces scraped off so that it was just an innocuous sort of curved line and not a Christian symbol. It was an interesting insight into the conversion of Church into Mosque and how symbols can be changed and rendered meaningless even when they're left in plain sight.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:03 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


From the link:

If approved, the project, details of which have been obtained by the Independent, would entail the demolition of a small library steps away from the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, which sits directly on top of what are believed to be the remains of the house of the Prophet's birth.

So its not as if something newER is being built on top of that area. It just seems that a library is being demolished which happens to be nearby a mosque which was built on top of a historical area.

So yeah. But if you mefites want outrage, I'd figure you'd be all "hey, why are they tearing down a library to build a palace for the rich people already".

But whatevs. Rich people gonna rich.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:05 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


To further the analogy: Monticello is worth keeping around because it's architecturally significant. If Thomas Jefferson had somehow lived in a post-war ranch in a subdivision, I'd be all for tearing that sucker down.
Monitcello is not only architecturally significant, but provides a useful context for understanding Jefferson. If he lived in a cookie-cutter subdivision, that would still provide useful context for understanding the man, particularly hundreds of years after subdivisions have been abandoned as a residential norm.

And that is probably exactly why the House of Saud is so eager to destroy these historical sites and replace them with their own Wahhabiland versions. By destroying historical context, they have more opportunity to create the Islam that they prefer.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:06 PM on February 22 [16 favorites]


I agree with you, Mrs Pterodactyl. Taking public space private is theft from the people. But this would be true regardless of the space or its "significance." Would you not agree that it is insane to spill blood over a "scrap of ground," for reasons of religion, ideology, politics or material greed? What the hell are they fighting for?
posted by SPrintF at 1:06 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


The other end of this spectrum is Israel where you can't do any construction at all without hiring an archaeologist first.
posted by aubilenon at 1:07 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Wait, who's spilling blood?
posted by Sys Rq at 1:08 PM on February 22


Sys Rq: are you serious? The struggle over the control of Jerusalem, alone, is enough to make one weep over the folly of humanity. Forget about the settlements.
posted by SPrintF at 1:12 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Yeah, um, okay. I thought we were talking about this, not a dispute two countries away.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:13 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


I'm far more upset at Bait al Saud for the deplorable state of Jabal Nur than I am about this.
posted by planetesimal at 1:16 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


There's something I like about the notion of not using relics and representations as focal points of religious adoration. Please do not misconstrue this as me being OK with the hellish injustices perpetrated in the name of Islam and other religions.
posted by Mister_A at 1:18 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Good for them. If it makes them happy.
posted by Caskeum at 1:26 PM on February 22


In general I'm pretty antireligious. I feel it causes huge amounts of harm with relatively little compensation.

However, one of its saving graces is the beautiful history it leaves behind. Desecrating that history for something this crass seems awful.
posted by ElliotH at 1:27 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


Please read the damn article. It's short, and contains little gems like this:

But the construction company in charge of redeveloping the area, the Saudi Binladin Group, proposes that it be razed to make way instead for the imam's residence and an adjacent presidential palace.

Yes, that is Osama Bin Laden's family, the family fortune that launched his jihad.

It might be more productive to focus on the topic, by discussing the Wahabi's iconoclasm in context of Islam radicalized by Al Qaeda.

It would be less productive to sneer at people for "idolatry."
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:28 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Also, I'm pretty sure even from a totally secular angle, Library > Palace.
posted by ElliotH at 1:28 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Worth remembering that Wahhabism, in its quasi-Calvinist extremism, is ready to give the middle finger to other (and much older) Islamic traditions, just as surely as to the secular West. In fact, more surely. One always fights more bitterly with one's relatives than with strangers.
posted by edheil at 1:29 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


theocracy-gunna-make-decisions-in-accordance-with-their-stated-theological-opinions.
posted by kiltedtaco at 1:32 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


But knowledge, true understanding, that is the treasure of the soul. Fighting over a scrap of ground is unworthy.

Scraps of ground produce knowledge all the time. That is why we have archaeology. And even after they've been excavated they continue to provide knowledge via how people react to them, revere them (or not), and work them into their lives. Knowledge is not just a thing that lies in books or on the internet: it's also embedded into landscapes, which is why some people try and preserve them whether they are urban or rural or something inbetween. Otherwise we might as well say it's okay to demolish anything - work of art, building, mountain - once you've got an image of it captured.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:40 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


This devotion to "sacred ground" is why the Middle East still groans in pain.

Not to mention what is going on with Lower Manhattan.
posted by hippybear at 2:06 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


with the number of folks I know with Islamic names who exchange Islamic greetings, I would think that the connection to Muhammad would be a pretty big and terrible deal
posted by angrycat at 2:10 PM on February 22


Yes, that is Osama Bin Laden's family, the family fortune that launched his jihad.

That's a bit like holding the Hearsts responsible for the Sybionese Liberation Army.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:11 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Possessions are nothing; no, worse than nothing, they are a trap. But knowledge, true understanding, that is the treasure of the soul. Fighting over a scrap of ground is unworthy.

Golly, SPrintF, I guess we all learned an important lesson today. I sure won't start any more ethno-religious conflicts over disputed historical territory. Thanks!
posted by strangely stunted trees at 2:11 PM on February 22 [8 favorites]


So when are Muslim Terrorists going to rise up against the Saudi Royal Family for its desecrations? Oh, wait, all the terrorists who ever did anything terroristic either belonged to Wahhabism or were funded indirectly by the Saudis... yeah. So, this is actually quite consistent for them.

That's a bit like holding the Hearsts responsible for the Sybionese Liberation Army.
Nobody ever kidnapped Osama Bin Ladin. Bad analogy.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:13 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Hah, the Sauds aren't adherants of anything. They are corrupt and decadent dictators who believe in doing whatever is necessary to preserve their own power. If they were judged by the insane rules they impose upon their subjects, the entire useless bunch would have been executed long ago.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:14 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


I don't think Binladin Group is anything more than poignant .. they've been around since before Al Qaeda and trusted to do sensitive projects like this one. One if not largest company of its type in SA.
posted by stbalbach at 2:15 PM on February 22


Am I still reading Metafilter?
posted by planetesimal at 2:43 PM on February 22 [9 favorites]


"And that is probably exactly why the House of Saud is so eager to destroy these historical sites and replace them with their own Wahhabiland versions. By destroying historical context, they have more opportunity to create the Islam that they prefer."

It's a spot of ground under a library with unestablished provenance. It's really a "George Washington Stood Here" sign.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:46 PM on February 22


It's a spot of ground under a library with unestablished provenance. It's really a "George Washington Stood Here" sign.

I'm interested in reading the citations you will undoubtedly present to back up your statement.
posted by Pudhoho at 2:57 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Am I still reading Metafilter?
posted by oceanjesse at 3:11 PM on February 22 [16 favorites]


Worth remembering that Wahhabism, in its quasi-Calvinist extremism, is ready to give the middle finger to other (and much older) Islamic traditions, just as surely as to the secular West. In fact, more surely. One always fights more bitterly with one's relatives than with strangers.

So are we funding these guys or what?
posted by codswallop at 3:24 PM on February 22


I think this is only available to subscribers, but if you have a New Yorker sub, this is an excellent article on the extraordinary work of demolition and new construction that's going on in Mecca. It goes far, far beyond this one proposal. I find it all conceptually fascinating, because there's a sense in which it's hard to see how you can avoid some aspect of "idolatry" in the central practices of Islamic worship (Mecca, after all, is a concrete place, may holy by concrete historic actions; the whole idea of the Hajj seems inextricably linked to a kind of reverence for the concrete thing rather than for the abstract divine idea (and at the very center of the ritual practices of the Hajj you have what looks like a kind of idolatry of objects/relics sanctified by their particular history). And yet at the same time the Saudis have a rigorous anti-idolatrous theology that leads them to treat many of these extraordinary historical sites with well-documented associations with Muhammad and his contemporary associates in a way we would consider cavalier in the treatment of, say, a third-rate work by a famous architect or a building in which a well-known writer happened to be born.

(Please note, by the way, that I'm not "accusing" anyone of idolatry or of vandalism or anything else in the above comment. I'm simply describing what strike me at least on the surface level as apparent tensions which make it very interesting to try to understand how they are resolved in the minds and practices of the faithful.)
posted by yoink at 3:48 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


I'm assuming the new buildings will be built with "almost" slave labor so common in the middle east?
posted by blue_beetle at 3:59 PM on February 22


Worth remembering that Wahhabism, in its quasi-Calvinist extremism, is ready to give the middle finger to other (and much older) Islamic traditions, just as surely as to the secular West. In fact, more surely.

A friend of mine (an atheist from a British/Pakistani Muslim family) explained to me that the closest analogy to Wahhabiism/Salafism in Christian history would probably be the Protestant Reformation; in both cases. you get a movement striking out at institutional religious authority and urging a return to the basics as the alternative.
posted by acb at 4:50 PM on February 22


A friend of mine (an atheist from a British/Pakistani Muslim family) explained to me that the closest analogy to Wahhabiism/Salafism in Christian history would probably be the Protestant Reformation

And, of course, the Protestants in Europe had their outbursts of iconoclastic destruction, smashing Catholic sculptures, paintings, decorations, relics etc. on precisely the same grounds of their being "idolatrous."
posted by yoink at 4:58 PM on February 22 [6 favorites]


But knowledge, true understanding, that is the treasure of the soul. Fighting over a scrap of ground is unworthy.

But but but ... adding "wisdom" to the Human Development Index would throw all of those comforting results into COMPLETE DISARRAY!!

(Except for Norway, of course)
posted by Twang at 5:17 PM on February 22


The Saudis have long had what seems like a deliberate program to erase every site associated with the historical Mohammed. It's a shame, because we really don't know much about him and these sites would be the most wonderful places for archaeological research. I can't help thinking that the erasure is the purpose, not the consequence, of this re-purposing.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:25 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


In 10,000 more years, every spot on earth will be historically or spiritually important in some way or another. All of humanity will have to live on the ocean or move off planet to avoid offending somebody somewhere.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:38 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


His Wikipedia entry is informative.

After eight years of fighting with the Meccan tribes, his followers, who by then had grown to 10,000, took control of Mecca in the largely peaceful Conquest of Mecca. He destroyed the pagan idols in the city[15] and then sent his followers out to destroy all of the remaining pagan temples in Eastern Arabia.[16][17]
posted by Brian B. at 6:30 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


I skipped through most of this thread but does it amuse anyone else that they're so hard against idols but they're wanting to build a palace to honor the king? Isn't that idolizing him??
posted by Cyclopsis Raptor at 6:59 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Difference between religious and secular idolatry. Also, expediency.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:04 PM on February 22


I regret the loss of the Bamiyan giant Buddhas the most of all.

Speaking of which: Bamiyan Buddha work halted over 'secret rebuilding project'
posted by homunculus at 9:23 PM on February 22


[Deleted a few things. f you've said the same thing over and over and over, saying it again in different words isn't going to help your argument enough to be worth the irritation. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 9:48 PM on February 22


In 10,000 more years, every spot on earth will be historically or spiritually important in some way or another. All of humanity will have to live on the ocean or move off planet to avoid offending somebody somewhere.

posted by zengargoyle at 5:38 PM on February 22


There is wisdom here, I think.
posted by SPrintF at 10:25 PM on February 22


There's something I like about the notion of not using relics and representations as focal points of religious adoration.

Islam began in a specific time and place and was led by specific people. Wiping out any trace of their physical existence is basically an effort to control the future narrative of Islam by disconnecting devotees from the historical events of their faith.

It's the equivalent of destroying every site mentioned in the New Testament and paving it over so that no one could ever go to the actual locations where any of the events happened, leaving them as almost fictional places that modern day teachers could claim anything about they wanted.

Or, in a more secular sense, destroying Plymouth Rock and replacing Mt. Vernon with a mall.
posted by deanc at 11:04 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


It's the equivalent of destroying every site mentioned in the New Testament and paving it over so that no one could ever go to the actual locations where any of the events happened, leaving them as almost fictional places that modern day teachers could claim anything about they wanted.
That sort of already happened. The Romans steamrolled the place. Where original structures remain, different denominations often pick different physical locations.

What is the Arabic media saying about this?
posted by b1tr0t at 11:25 PM on February 22


Wiping out any trace of their physical existence is basically an effort to control the future narrative of Islam by disconnecting devotees from the historical events of their faith.

I think the point was to discourage people from worshiping an artifact other than an imaginary deity with made up history as scripture. The so-called pagan temples were places of healing and fortune telling, where offerings were made for exact favors from an idol. Nothing's changed much except that they tried to centralize it across large geographical regions. The importance of shrines in all major religions shows that they are basically the same devotion. Destroying ancient art was something Christians did on a massive scale because they regarded them as powerful images of false idols (not saints or true idols). It goes with the territory of being a universal monotheism, replacing the local influences, etc.
posted by Brian B. at 11:26 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


In 10,000 more years, every spot on earth will be historically or spiritually important in some way or another.

Only if records persist. Or to put it another way, anywhere that has been inhabited at any point during the existence of humanity (almost everywhere except Antarctica) probably has already had historical or spiritual importance, we’ve just forgotten about it.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 2:08 AM on February 23


In 10,000 more years, every spot on earth will be historically or spiritually important in some way or another. All of humanity will have to live on the ocean or move off planet to avoid offending somebody somewhere.

I choose the 'offplanet' option. Let me know when it's time to leave, until then I'll be in my bunk.
posted by mikelieman at 6:36 AM on February 23


So when are Muslim Terrorists going to rise up against the Saudi Royal Family for its desecrations? Oh, wait, all the terrorists who ever did anything terroristic either belonged to Wahhabism or were funded indirectly by the Saudis... yeah. So, this is actually quite consistent for them.

There have been many terrorist movements over the last few decades which have aimed to overthrow the House of Saud. Many of them have been aligned with Wahhabism.
posted by atrazine at 5:29 AM on February 24


A seemingly crazy phenomenon that has cropped up in Saudi due to the wahabbist restrictions is the turning of ancient cemetaries into junkyards. While this sounds terrible to people that think mourners might actually want to return to theirloved ones' graves for healing, there is a trick to getting around this. People that wish to continue marking graves use the junk to catalog grave locations. So when you want to go leave flowers on grandma's grave you don't look for row c number 12, you look for the third car door after the rusty washing machine.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:52 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


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